You probably don’t need me to tell you that food culture here in England is (and yes, I am using the classic English art of understatement here!) slightly different to much of the rest of the world. We seem to have developed a reputation for being a bit backwards when it comes to cuisine. As Londoners, we’d naturally dispute this view of things and – as we like to show our students who study English with us – we believe that one of the joys of the city is that you can easily eat your way round the world here – as this blog demonstrates so well.
However, one obvious example of how eccentric we are here when it comes to eating connects to a question we’re often asked: what do you say before eating with English people? Or, in other words, what’s the English for bon appétit?
Now, most languages that I have any experience of have fixed expressions that are used in this particular situation. And you could argue that the English for bon appétit is … well, bon appétit. As so many of our food-related words (like cuisine itself, of course) come from French, the term does exist and it is used in English. However, as with many words derived from French, it also has a whiff of social climbing about it and can seem pretentious and self-aggrandizing.
In reality, the phrases people use both to announce the fact that food is on the table and ready to eat AND the phrases that people use before eating vary wildly – and, as with so much native-speaker usage – depend on age, region and class. I decided to ask Facebook friends what was said in their households before meals and here’s a selection of what they told me:
To announce to the family food was ready:
Wash your hands.
There you go. Enjoy your meal.
Grub up! (= the food is ready . . . grub is an informal word for food)
Dig in everyone! (= start eating now!)
Don’t wait. Tuck in. (= start eating)
And when someone else has prepared the meal for you:
This looks great / delicious / wonderful / nice/ very good. Thank you!
My favourite answer of all, posted by an American friend, was this: “In the States, we’d say ‘Don’t change the channel. I am watching that!!'”
In my experience, most students expect there to be some kind of formal phrase like they have in their own countries, but if you’re eating at someone’s house, the most important thing is to compliment the cook at some point during the meal (even if the food is awful!). In restaurants here, it really is OK just to say nothing. Honestly!
- Does your language have a fixed phrase that’s usually said before meals?
- What was said before meals in your house when you were growing up – by both parents and children?
- What do you know about English food? What have you tried? Where? What did you think of it?
- Do you eat much foreign food? What’s your favourite? What would you like to try, but haven’t yet?